In this week’s blog, journalist and author Eugene Byrne shares a historical joke with a moral message about the holy man Nasreddin Hoca, thought to have lived in 13th-century Turkey. Eugene takes a closer look at the legends surrounding both the story and Nasreddin Hoca himself.
Back in medieval times, a poor man was walking through the marketplace in Akşehir in Turkey one day. He noticed the delicious smell coming from the stall of a grilled meat vendor, and felt very hungry. Although he could not afford any meat, he went over to the stall and took a few pieces of bread from his pocket and held them in the smoke coming from the grill, then ate them.
As he was leaving, the vendor said, “Hey, you owe me for that!”
The poor man refused to pay, and a heated argument developed.
To settle the dispute, they agreed to see the local magistrate, Nasreddin Hoca, who was renowned as a wise and holy man.
Nasreddin listened to both men’s argument, and then said to the poor man: “Give me your purse.”
The poor man was surprised, but handed over all his money.
The bag contained a few dozen coins of little value. Hoca emptied them onto the table.
“Did you hear the sound of the coins?” he asked the vendor.
“Yes,” the vendor replied.
Nasreddin put the coins back into the purse and handed it back to the poor man. He turned to the vendor to give his judgement: “The price of smoke is the sound of coins. You sold smoke, and in return you heard the sound of the money. You have now been paid in full.”
The story behind the joke
Nasreddin Hoca is a household name in Turkey, with various different spellings and titles (Mullah, Effendi) in other Middle Eastern and Asian countries, too – the word Hoca itself denoted one who had completed the Hajj, a difficult undertaking in the Middle Ages.
Hoca is thought to have lived in Anatolia (in Akşehir and, later, Konya) during the 13th century, and while the details of his life are sparse, the tales of his adventures and jokes are legion – the nearest European comparison might be with the fables of Aesop. There are tales of Nasreddin dating back to the middle ages, but they have been added to ever since. There are hundreds of them.
In these, Nasreddin is variously a philosopher, Sufi holy man, and/or practical joker. The stories can usually be interpreted on different levels, usually as a straightforward gag, but with a deeper moral or philosophical message, too. Most of all, Nasreddin is a folk-hero, the champion or representative of the little man whose preferred method of transport is a donkey, never a horse.
In art and innumerable cartoons he is often depicted on his donkey – sometimes wearing the saddlebags on his own shoulders, to spare the donkey the burden of carrying them. UNESCO declared 1996–1997 International Nasreddin Year, to mark what was thought to be the 700th anniversary of death, and there is an annual Nasreddin festival at Akşehir every summer.